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September 2011

Impulsive, Neurotic People Most Likely to Be Overweight


A new study suggests that certain personality traits such as neuroticism, impulsivity and aggressiveness may increase the likelihood that an individual will struggle to maintain a healthy weight.

Researchers from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) examined data from a Batimore, Md.-based longitudinal study of nearly 2,000 people to identify if and how certain personality traits might affect weight and body mass index (BMI). The subjects, who were followed for 50 years and included equal numbers of men and women, were generally healthy and well-educated, with 71 percent identified as white, 22 percent as black and the remaining 7 percent identified as another ethnicity. The personality traits the researchers assessed are known as the “Big Five” traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. An additional 30 subcategories of these traits also were examined, and subjects were periodically weighed and measured over time.

Impulsivity was identified as the strongest predictor of being overweight, with individuals who scored in the top 10 percent of impulsivity weighing an average of 22 pounds more than those who were the least impulsive. Additionally, high neuroticism and low conscientiousness was associated with ongoing cycles of gaining and losing weight throughout one’s lifetime.

“Individuals with this constellation of traits tend to give in to temptation and lack the discipline to stay on track amid difficulties or frustration,” wrote lead researcher Dr. Angelina R. Sutin in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Clearly, losing weight—and more importantly, keeping it off—requires both commitment and self-control, which is no doubt more difficult for people who are more impulsive.

Other traits associated with greater weight gain over time included risk taking and being antagonistic; individuals who were identified as cynical, competitive and aggressive were also more likely to be overweight. Conversely, individuals who were considered to be conscientious tended to be leaner.

Researchers believe these findings may help to explain why some people go through countless cycles of weight gain and loss and, therefore, have a harder time maintaining a healthy weight.

Still, Sutin cautions that the connection between personality traits and weight gain is anything but simple and likely includes both physiological and behavioral mechanisms as well. “We hope that by more clearly identifying the association between personality and obesity,” says Sutin, a post-doctoral research fellow at the NIA’s Laboratory of Personality and Cognition, “more tailored treatments will be developed.”

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